It all happened one Halloween night, when the silver steeples and pinnacles of Kraków gleamed in the light of the full moon, and the stars shivered from on high. In the midst of this chilly world sat my Uncle Dariusz, huddled in the twelfth-century tower atop St Mary’s church, getting ready to open the window and blare out his patriotic trumpeter’s tune on the next striking of the hour, as has been the custom in this Slavonic town for the last seven hundred years.
Now at this time of year it gets pretty nippy up there in the ancient tower of St Mary’s – and lonely, too. And the trouble with Uncle Dariusz was that he never thought much of his own company. When left by himself, you see, he used to fall into the bad habit of brooding about his faithless wife. Just why he was chosen for such a lonely job was, in my opinion, a typical bureaucratic Polish cock-up.
Okay, so Uncle Dariusz happened to be an extremely good trumpeter, I’m not disputing that fact. He first discovered the trumpet when he was two years old and mastered it by the time he was six. At least so I’ve heard. Whereas normal toddlers are told off by their harassed mums for shouting and kicking and vomiting and peeing and pooing in all the places they’re not supposed to do those things, my Uncle Dariusz was told off for playing the trumpet too loudly. You see, the neighbours complained. Now this wouldn’t normally have mattered, because my uncle’s mother was a very strong-willed, independent sort of woman. The problem was that the neighbours in question happened to be an ex-KGB family who had emigrated to Poland after being made redundant. So you can understand why she wanted to be a bit careful, just to be on the safe side.
Anyway, there’s more to the Trumpeter of Kraków’s job than just being a good trumpeter. The chosen candidate also has to be a good time-keeper and reader and meditator and observer-of-life and teetotaller. Teetotalller, do I hear you ask? Yes, teetotaller. Why? Simple, if you pause to think about it. What do a lot of people tend to do when they’re bored – especially when left all by themselves on long, dark Slavonic evenings? They drink. And what happens to a bored trumpeter while waiting fifty-six minutes before he can once again let rip with his instrument? He drinks. And what happens to a drunk trumpeter? He plays out of tune. So, you see, one of the most important qualities for the Trumpeter of Kraków is to be a teetotaller which, unfortunately, my dear Uncle Dariusz was most definitely not.
As I was saying, it all happened one cold, lonely Halloween night. Now what I forgot to mention was the fact that I was extremely close to my Uncle Dariusz. In fact, he was more like a father to me. Especially seeing as my own father buggered off to America with Uncle Dariusz’s wife soon after I was born, leaving my mother and dear uncle to bring me up all by themselves. That’s when I too began to learn how to play the trumpet, rather than the more feminine flute. You might say I didn’t have any choice in the matter.
So on this cold, star-and-moonlit night, my uncle was feeling lonelier than usual, which must have been the reason why he decided to give me a ring from his isolated turret. As soon as I heard his gloomy voice at the other end of the line, I knew I had to go to him. It was obvious right from the start that I didn’t have any choice in the matter, just as I never had any choice in learning how to play the wretched trumpet. So I put on my warmest coat, checked my pockets for tram tickets, and headed for the market square in the cobbled centre of Kraków.
Half an hour later, I was there.
“Hello, Uncle,” I panted as I tumbled into the refrigerated room, trying to regain my breath after climbing all those four hundred and seventy-two twelfth-century steps.
But he wasn’t listening. He was sitting by the open window, oblivious to the inclement temperature. He just sat there, looking out towards … well, all I could see was the dark, endless sky, floodlit by the winking stars and the full moon.
“What are you looking at, Uncle?” I asked him, hoping he wouldn’t lose his balance. It was an awfully long way down, and dedicated trumpeters are hard to come by these days.
“Hmm? Whazzat?” he vacantly replied, not even bothering to turn round.
“I said what are you looking at, Uncle?”
And then at last he did turn round.
“Wanda, my beloved niece! You’ve come! I knew you would!”
I smiled a tad anxiously. There was a program I wanted to watch at ten o’clock. I hoped he would get to the point quickly and tell me why he had required my presence so urgently.
“Wanda, you will be pleased to know that after twenty lonely years of heartache since my faithless wife left me, I have at last fallen in love again!”
At first I didn’t know what to say. However, I eventually decided that something like ‘I’m very pleased to hear that, Uncle Dariusz,’ would be appropriate. So I said it.
“Of course you are, dearest Wanda. And you will be even more pleased to know that we intend to get married first thing tomorrow morning!”
This time I had even less idea of what to say. ‘You do?’ was all that came to mind. So I said that, as well.
Uncle Dariusz jumped down from his perched position on the window ledge, gave me an iced bear hug, and pulled out a small bottle of potato vodka from his trumpet case. He then walked over to a decrepit cupboard and extracted two small glasses, two plates, a pot of Russian caviar and a loaf of black rye bread, all of which he placed on the wrinkled wooden table in the middle of the circular tower room.
“Dearest Wanda,” he announced. “You cannot even begin to understand how much I love my dear Lela. Would you like me to introduce you to her?”
I glanced round the tiny room. Where could she possibly be hidden? I know that Polish women are prone to petiteness, but this was getting ridiculous.
“Actually – no, best not,” Uncle Dariusz said, frowning. “You might try to talk me out of marrying her. Let us celebrate on our own.” He pulled out a chair for me.
“Would you mind if I closed the window first?”
“Of course not, my dear niece. I’ve grown so used to the temperatures up here, I keep forgetting that other people have the ordinary blood of mortals.”
I smiled indulgently. It was a typical Uncle Dariusz sort of thing to say. I forgot to mention that he had always been a bit of an odd bod, to say the least, as well as a hopelessly incurable romantic.
I walked over to the window and held my breath as I reached out to pull the cold, stiff handle towards me. Kraków’s plethora of glittering lights beckoned from the abyss below, making me feel giddy for several moments, almost out of control. It was as if all those scattered stars had tumbled down from the sky and were now beseeching me to join them … so far away, yet so close; and the church tower that feigned protection – so isolated, so high up, slowly becoming a part of the eternal deep-freeze …
I slammed the window shut, instantly regaining my sanity. It was hardly any wonder that several previous Trumpeters of Kraków had been known to go mad.
Uncle Dariusz poured each of us a generous vodka. He downed his in one gulp. “To my beautiful Lela!” he cried out.
Not wanting to cause offence, I followed suit with the ancient Slavonic ritual. “To your beautiful Lela!” I echoed, wincing as the burning, 40% alcohol tumbled full-speed ahead down my throat. Then we both tucked into our caviar and rye bread.
“Where did you get the caviar from?” I asked as my innards slowly began to thaw out.
“Lela brought it over from Russia,” Uncle Dariusz replied with full mouth, the crumbs tumbling down his chin and bouncing off the table into his wide-open trumpet case.
“So she’s Russian, then?”
Now the learned Polish reader will know that I couldn’t possibly have said a more tactless thing. I honestly don’t know what got into me.
“Of course she’s not Russian!” my uncle retorted. “Don’t be insulting! Lela simply … shall we say, travels a lot. Yes. She finds travelling very easy.” He grinned a rather wicked grin, which merely aggravated my curiosity.
“So what does she do that entails so much travelling?” I asked.
“Do? Why, Lela doesn’t have to do anything. She just is. And that happens to be more than enough for me. Why do all the young generation have to think in terms of doing all the time? You busy people, always rushing left right and centre in order to beat each other to the best clothes and computers and holidays and whatever else it is that consumes you so. With us, you see – I mean with Lela and me – well, we just are. And we just love. And we just appreciate. You should too, my dear girl. Even the ancient tune I play for my living. After all, it was that very tune which first drew Lela towards me one cold, lonely night not all that dissimilar to this one.”
“So where does she come from?”
At this my uncle looked both surprised and haughty. “Does it really matter where she comes from? Does she has to come from anywhere?”
“Well, no …” I struggled for a moment or two, and then tried a different tack. “Okay, then. What does she look like? Can you at least tell me that much?”
And that was my undoing. Or rather, Uncle Dariusz’s undoing. Because it was at that point that he really – well, flipped is the only way I can phrase it.
This is what he replied.
“My lady love has hair the colour of night, and eyes the colour of stars, and faith the colour of eternity.”
“Yes, Uncle, that’s very poetic,” I humoured him. “But who is she?”
And suddenly, he looked perplexed. “Why do you have to force her to be someone? Why can’t the art of being in itself be enough? Why do you mortals always create such problems?”
“But Uncle, why do you keep on talking as though you’re – immortal?” I was beginning to feel a bit edgy. It might have been the vodka, but I think it was more likely to have been the strange light in my uncle’s eyes.
“Because, my dear Wanda,” he carefully began, standing up at the same time, “my beautiful, faithful Lela has made me immortal!”
And then he did a terrifying thing. He sprinted over to the window, yanked it open and perched himself on the ledge like a delirious phantom, arms outstretched to the cold, brittle horizon.
“Uncle Dariusz, be careful!’ I cried, leaping up myself.
He turned round just long enough to give me a look of pity tinged with remorse. But a split second later he was once again facing the celestial sheet of diamond-encrusted sky, his lean body arched like an Olympic diver.
“Don’t do it, Uncle!” I shrieked, grabbing his trouser leg in desperation.
But it was too late. The material slipped through my fingers with the slitheriness of an eel.
“Uncle Da …”
Before I even had the chance to finish calling his name, he was already on his way down: down towards the icy blades of doom.
Only that’s where I was wrong, you see.
His body was never found. It took me some weeks before I realised that he hadn’t actually jumped to his doom, and neither had he jumped down. He had jumped up. Up into the black, starlit night, with faith the colour of eternity.
I didn’t have the chance to search for his body that night. You see, all this happened at one minute to the hour. And remember what the Trumpeter of Kraków does every hour, twenty-four hours a day, twelve months a year? Right first time! He plays his little jingle.
So there I was, stuck all by myself in the dank, freezing, medieval turret of St Mary’s church, abandoned by my wily Uncle Dariusz, with nothing but his trumpet, vodka and Russian caviar to keep me company. And as the huge church bell boomed out the hour, I had no choice, did I? I simply had to pick up my uncle’s trumpet, and return to the open window, and blare out the wretched tune which trumpeters of Kraków have been blaring out for the past seven centuries.
It seems like seven centuries since it all happened. In reality, it was only thirteen years ago.
After word got round of what happened to Uncle Dariusz – well, obviously no one wanted the job, did they? So I’ll give you one guess who ended up being the next Trumpeter of Kraków!